Measure for Measure by Shakespeare in the Park – Review

Measure for Measure Review – Maple Hayes Hall

Shakespeare in the Park

Opening Night, Tuesday 20 June 2018

After my first visit to Shakespeare in the Park in 2017 to see As You Like It I was really thrilled to make my second ‘appearance’ for their 2018 production of Measure for Measure.
The plays are performed in the woods of the Italian Gardens that surround Maple Hayes Hall, a stunning Georgian listed building, built in 1794 and now home to Maple Hayes School for Dyslexia.
The first Shakespeare in the Park (or SitP for short!) production was in 1986 and they performed The Taming of the Shrew. In 2005 Measure for Measure took its first bow at Maple Hayes and it now returns for 2018.

Measure for Measure is one of Shakespeare’s darker comedic plays and is certainly much darker than last year’s pastoral comedy As You Like It. Set in the city of Vienna, it does have many of the usual Shakespearean elements to it though: criss-crossed plot-lines; misunderstandings, characters masquerading as other characters; double entendres; drunks; ne’er-do-wells; jocular oafs and winsome wenches! But along with the comedy there is also a very dark moralistic plot that is undercut by violence, verbal and sexual abuse and even a (off screen luckily!) beheading.

The plot is quite convoluted and complicated and it is fairly difficult to keep up with so I’m going to attempt to provide a brief(ish) summary:

Vincentio, Duke of Vienna, is worried about the welfare of his city so sets up a ‘sting’ to find out what would happen if he left it to its own devices for a time and who would step into the power vacuum and try to fill it. So he announces he is leaving Vienna for a period but actually stays in the city to observe what unfolds, dressing himself in disguise as a monk. His deputy is Lord Angelo who sets out almost immediately to rid Vienna of all the ‘undesirables’ such as brothel keepers and people with loose sexual morals. His first victim is Claudio a young gentleman who has committed the cardinal sin of having sex pre-marriage with his girlfriend, Juliet. Claudio is sentenced to death to teach the rest of Vienna a lesson. His sister, Isabella, approaches Angelo to beg for mercy but Angelo will only agree to this in exchange for sexual ‘favours’ which appals Isabella and she refuses to cooperate. Duke Vincentio (aka the monk) intervenes, telling Isabella that evil Angelo was promised to marry an old lover, Mariana, but jilted her when she lost of all her dowry. Duke / Monk tells Isabella to meet with Angelo on the pretext of marrying him but will send Mariana in her place – Angelo will be hoist by his own petard as he will be forced to follow Viennese law and will have to agree to marry Mariana while at the same tine be blackmailed into pardoning death-row Claudio. However dirty tricks Angelo refuses to pardon the condemned man, fearing revenge and, after the beheading of a unfortunate pirate in a misguided attempt to fool the substitute city leader that it was the head of Claudio, the cross dressing Duke is forced to disrobe to reveal his true identity and attempt to resolve the whole sad, sorry mess. Will there be a happy ending – as almost always with a Will Shakespeare comedic play (even a dark one), you can probably guess the outcome!

Still with me? I would not blame you if you weren’t…

Although the play is quite difficult to keep up with it is definitely worth it as the script is very funny, very sharp and quite modern considering it was written (in all probability) in 1604! There is plenty of wordy witty sword play between the protagonists and there are the usual lovely bumbling, tumbling, meandering characters with comedy names that come straight out of The Two Ronnies Sketchbook –  Elbow, Mr Froth, Pompey and the wonderfully titled Mistress Overdone.

The flipside of the comedy interludes are some dramatic, caustic, violent and aggressive scenes where characters clash, men to men but also men to women. The scenes are very realistic and convincing, it certainly drew the attention of the audience last night where you could hear a pin (or a pine cone from one of the trees) drop at the critical, most physical, moments.

The SitP cast are all every experienced, either at previous Maple Hayes performances or other performances in and around Lichfield and I recognised several cast members from the Lichfield Players and the Lichfield Operatic Society and who have performed regularly at the Lichfield Garrick – we are in very safe hands here.

David Stonehouse had a twin role both on and off set, he was excellent playing the double-hander of the Duke Vincentio / Mysterious Monk and was also responsible for directing the show. The direction of this part comedy, part tragedy, part shock horror play must be handled very delicately as it would be easy to overbalance in one direction or the other but David achieves this in a very accomplished manner and it is quite easy for the audience to switch from being highly amused to highly shocked within a couple of scenes.

Robin Lewitt plays the haughty, double-standard loving, out for all he can get Angelo with brooding menace and Hannah Wyss is fabulous as Isabella, the concerned loving novice nun sister of the unfortunate Claudio who is torn between saving the life of her sibling against losing her virginity to an unrequited suitor. The angry and upsetting violent scenes between Isabella and Angelo are amazing, it generates real sparking chemistry and the violence and anger that Angelo unleashes on Isabella when he realises she will not surrender to his clutches is very realistic and very moving.

Sarah Stanley, who directed 2017’s As You Like It, plays Vincentio’s wife Escala with calm assurance, Stevie Morgan plays Juliet while also performing double duties as the Stage Manager, Sam Chesses is the let off the hook Claudio and Ellie Galvin, Hannah Davies and Ryan Gault all show versatility with a number of roles.

The comedic roles are all wonderfully played by Adrian Venables as Lucio, Fiona Willimott and Gemma Irving as Bad Girls Mistress Overdone and Pompey and Brian Todd as Constable Elbow and Friar Peter.

The closing scene of the play is a joyful, cast ensemble River of the Dance-esque routine choreographed with typical skill and dexterity by Charlotte Middleton – and after the tribulations of the somewhat traumatic plotlines sends everyone home happy with broad smiles and a drum beat in their feet!

The other star of the performance is, of course, the wonderful Maple Hayes Woods, the colours of which change with the setting sun and with each closing scene, and provides a wonderful, natural, calming and atmospheric ambience to the whole of the performance, it is truly magical.

I had never read Measure for Measure before, did not know the plot or the main characters but, despite the at times pitch-black script and challenging plot-lines, I really enjoyed it, I am definitely going to draw the book from Lichfield Library and read it through, if only to confirm my understanding of the plot!

I said earlier that we were in safe hands with the cast and crew of SitP – they just will not let you down, and Measure for Measure is another glorious triumph in a glorious setting – they certainly have the measure of William Shakespeare.

Measure for Measure by Shakespeare in the Park is on at Maple Hayes Hall grounds from Thursday 21 June to Saturday 23 June at 7.45pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2pm. Tickets priced £15.00 are available from the Lichfield Garrick box office on Castle Dyke, ring 01543 412121 or book online (for Friday and Saturday) direct at:

www.lichfieldgarrick.com/whats-on/drama/shakespeare-in-the-park-measure-for-measure/2190#